Among the least humane responses to the refugee crisis has been Australia’s.
In 2001, the government was so desperate to prevent migrants and refugees from living among them that it decided to transport all new arrivals to detention camps on two islands in the Pacific Ocean while their asylum claims were considered.
The conditions in these camps were nightmarish. People were murdered, raped and harassed by private security staff. Basic supplies were so scarce that women traded sexual favors for shoes. Suicide and suicide attempts were common, and children grew despondent from having witnessed so many of the adults around them drinking laundry detergent and cutting their wrists. In a disturbing display of self-harm, groups of kids would stitch their lips together. I wrote about the conditions in the wake of a document leak.
Everybody except the asylum seekers benefited from the camps — the governments of the host countries, Nauru and Papua New Guinea, got money, and Australia got rid of foreigners. Few policymakers seemed to care that innocent people were suffering or even that the camps were illegal. Last year, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled their confinement unconstitutional, yet some 900 men remain on Manus Island. Fewer than 400 remain in Nauru.
In December 2014, 1,904 asylum seekers sued the Australian government for physical and psychological injuries. After the Supreme Court ruling, they added wrongful imprisonment to the class action suit. Today, the government settled for $70 million, a deal that will keep a mountain of damning testimony and documentation out of the public record (for now), The Guardian reported. “Make no mistake – this is hush money,” one activist, Matthew Phillips, said.
But when you work out the math, it still doesn’t seem nearly enough. It’s an average of $36,745 for each asylum seeker in the class, but as The Australian reports, they’ll divvy it up based on “how long each person spent at the centre, the injuries they received and whether they were present for particular events” like an awful riot in 2014.
There’s more to learn about Australia’s detention program. I submitted a records request for high-level memos and briefings in August, and I’ve been pestering them every few weeks for nearly a year. It’s not difficult to imagine they don’t want that information out. As Phillips put it: “Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton will throw around a seemingly unlimited amount of taxpayer money to avoid public scrutiny.”
We’ll keep pushing,